Defining church: meditations on a visit to calgary.

Author:Faiz, Andrew
Position::Cover Story

Church, like Love, is a multifaeeted experience.


ASK A ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE about church and you will open up not just a box of stories but a range of meanings, connotations and denotations that are as varied as the people you are speaking to. Church is local and global, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, fully organic and also a human institution, a bureaucracy and a solace. Church needs money and people in the pews and church needs Christ and the Holy Spirit to keep her alive. We use the one word to say many things all at the same time.

While visiting ministries, ministers and churches in Calgary last spring I encountered this anew. In the following five profiles you will see common threads--congregations in transition, discerning their direction. In many ways these are representative congregations within the Canadian Presbyterian Church. Still I do not want to paint them with abroad brush; these are five ministers and their congregations wrestling with their own identity in a fast changing environment, a way of defining "church" for themselves which is local and global, equally dependent on a healthy cash flow and an ear finely tuned to the will of God for their ministry.

THE SUN POURS IN through the window of Rev. Helen Smith's office at Centennial, Calgary. She is seated facing me, her back to her desk and the window; during our chat, her phone keeps ringing for her next meeting regarding the children's summer program. Behind her is a simple desk, with a computer, and on either side behind the monitor, at her eye line are a colourful cross to the left and a poster to the right declaring: "The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with joy."

That's pretty much the message Smith shares with me: "God has richly blessed us through nothing that we have done."

Smith is minister at Centennial, which is in Pineridge, in the northeast quadrant of Calgary. In a fast growing, increasingly wealthy city, the northeast is what real estate agents might call the most affordable area. Close to half of Calgary's adult population was first or second generation according to a 2008 census report; it is the fourth national destination of choice for new immigrants.

Smith's congregation is two-thirds visible minorities, with an average of 100 people in the pews on Sunday mornings. Plus the children. Lots of children. She tells me this "new influx of people has given us a shot in the arm." These new members are byproducts of 19th-century missionary efforts, coming from Africa and the Caribbean, bringing with them strange new traditions and habits. These new members are also challenged in their new home, sometimes holding down two jobs, while improving their English skills, while being parents. They bring these anxieties, along with their hopefulness and their very physical faith into Centennial.


Amongst the other one-third on Sunday morning are the founding members of Centennial from 35 years ago. They've seen their city change, and their church. They may want to pass the baton on to the next generation, but it's not there any longer. Centennial's is in...

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